On February 8, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi started his party’s campaign in Northeast India for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, through a huge public rally that saw a record turnout. Modi tried to woo the voters. The idea was loud and clear, to spread the Modi wave across a region that has always been a stronghold of the Congress.
In Assam and the rest of the Northeast, before the NDA regime, the BJP was almost a non-entity. During the Vajpayee government, the advent of the Look East Policy and the inception of a separate Ministry for the Northeast brought initial brownie points for the BJP.
Today, Modi-related souvenirs like masks, badges and photos sell like hot cakes, giving the Gujarat chief minister just the right ambience to launch a scathing attack on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has represented Assam in the Rajya Sabha for 23 long years of not doing enough for the region.
Of the 14 seats in Assam, seven are with Congress, four with the BJP, one with the Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF), Maulana Badaruddin Ajmal’s All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) has one and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) has one seat. Modi, who has himself stayed and worked in Assam for both the RSS and the BJP, wants to take on the Congress in Assam, and he wants to break the jinx right away.
Tarun Gogoi has ruled the state from 2001. In the subsequent Assembly polls, the Congress has only increased its tally. It now has 78 MLAs out of 126 seats in the assembly.
The BJP firmly believes that the attack on the PM Manmohan Singh and the Congress for ‘not doing enough’ for Assam and the Northeast might cut the ice. The BJP has already shown signs of a new support base in Assam’s urban areas. In last year’s Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) polls, the BJP came second to the Congress, winning 11 out of 31 seats, clearly suggesting that anti-incumbency is setting in amongst urban voters, and that people in urban centres of Assam would look for alternatives – the BJP and the AAP are the top choices.
The land swap deal between India and Bangladesh, in which Assam stands to lose land, and the influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh have been picked up well by the Saffron party. The BJP has once headed a government in Arunachal Pradesh, in 2001. BJP MLAs also toppled the Samata Party (the previous avatar of Janata Dal (U)) government in Manipur. So it has the capability to spring surprises in regional politics. It is part of the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland government with the NPF and wants to foray into Meghalaya as well.
Modi has already attended five massive rallies in the Northeast. He is eyeing 25 seats in Northeast India not just for votes, but to make his present felt beyond the Hindi heartland. However, his mission in Northeast is in for a bumpy ride.
Modi has four North-eastern states in his radar: Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh. In every rally he has attended in the Northeast so far, the firebrand leader has sparked emotions, perhaps to break the jinx of the BJP being a party of the Hindi heartland, as has been projected for decades by the Congress.
Of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in Northeast India including Sikkim, the BJP has only four MPs, all in Assam, only nine MLAs in 498 assembly seats spread across the region, and do not have any legislature in Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram and Sikkim. Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, Modi is desperate to break new grounds and he is targeting Northeast, where Congress rules five of the eight states and is seen as the only pan-India party.
Former Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Gegong Apang, who is the second longest serving chief minister in the country with a record 22 years, mostly with the Congress, has resigned and re-joined the BJP. The BJP is also expected to win both the Lok Saha seats in this state.
But a lot depends on how the BJP does in its traditional stronghold in Assam – the Barak valley region, particularly the prestigious Silchar seat.
Modi has calculated and played the Hindutva card. He has said Hindus who are persecuted in Bangladesh should not be stopped from coming to India. In the 2011 Assembly polls in Assam, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi played the Hindutva card and said his party will allow refugee status to Bengali Hindus who have entered Assam fearing religious persecution in neighbouring Bangladesh.
The same card then helped the Congress take the initiative away from the BJP and the party won 13 of the 15 seats in the Barak valley. In fact, in the whole of Assam, it is believed the Hindus votes have migrated towards the Congress. The BJP could manage only five seats in the 126 member state assembly in the 2011 polls. That’s why Modi launched his Hindutva message while balancing with the apprehensions of the Assamese society about illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
The BJP party, which always harps on the issue of illegal migrants from across the border, suffered a debacle in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley, its traditional stronghold. The results showed that Bengali Hindu voters left the BJP for the Congress. While the AGP and the AIUDF bagged one seat each, the BJP got nil, but it still holds the prestigious Silchar Lok Sabha seat.
From the last assembly polls in Assam in 2011, Muslims, who make up 30% of the electorate, switched their allegiance from the Congress to the AIUDF, which has since 2006 aggressively taken up the cause of minorities. With 18 legislators, the AIUDF is Assam’s largest opposition party and since it has more Muslim MLAs than the Congress, it has eroded the Congress’ Muslim vote bank, and created the scope for sharp division of votes in Assam on religious lines. This is where Modi wants to cash in. But it can be counterproductive for the BJP as well; since the BJP and the AGP are no more allies, the anti-Muslim votes will get divided.
The BJP actually has a lot of ground to cover. In most of the Northeast, it is still seen as a party that does not have national appeal; it is more popular in the Hindi heartland. In the Northeast, either the Congress, which has more national appeal, has done well, or regional parties or secular parties working with the people from ground zero, have been able to get electoral mandates.
An extra emotive Modi has started all his speeches in Assam with the slogan “Joy Aai Asom”, an innocent slogan from the days of the Assam agitation of the 1980s. This is not being taken very well by the Bengali-dominated Barak valley, as is sparks emotions of the infamous anti-Bengali Mmovement. Recently, Gogoi, on a visit to the Barak Valley, also started his speech with this slogan.
But Modi also has a separate strategy to draw the Assamese nationalist votes to the BJP. With the fall of the AGP, most of its senior leaders are now in the BJP fold. The state BJP unit chief Sarbananda Sonowal was once an AGP MP from Dibrugarh. Former AGP president Chandra Mohan Patowary is also in the BJP and contesting elections. The BJP has ripped the AGP apart rank and file, and that’s why Modi’s new agenda in Assam perhaps would be to give a more Assamese nationalist face to the party.
In Tripura, Modi is trying to rake up tribal sentiments of alienation. There is a strong feeling in Tripura that the indigenous tribals have been over shadowed by refugees from Bangladesh who have settled there. He carried his anti migrant tirade to Tripura, trying to cash into the eroding base of the indigenous tribal parties in the state.
And in states like Mizoram, and even to some extend Meghalaya and Nagaland, where the church plays a key role in routing voters’ choices, Modi’s Hindutva line would not be easily acceptable.
Modi has cast his dice in Northeast. Time will say if he is able to make a dent or not.